Historiated Initials: Letters with a Story to Tell!

By Jenny Weston

Medieval initials come in all shapes and sizes. They also come with different kinds of decoration. While some feature twisty vines, flowers, and other abstract designs, others present more detailed and distinctive figures and scenes.

Harley 2803, f.176

Isaiah standing in an historiated Initial ‘V’ for Visio: Harley 2803, f.176

Known as ‘historiated initials’, these portray figures or scenes that are clearly identifiable — they tell a story. In the initial ‘V’ above, we see the figure of Isaiah holding a scroll containing the opening words of the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

Some initials are more easily understood than others (at first glance). The following initial, for example, depicts Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from heaven. The identity of Moses is revealed via the context of the scene (God emerging from the clouds to deliver the tablets), as well as from the two little horns poking out of his head.

Royal 3 E I   f. 112

Historiated Initial ‘H’ for Hec: Royal 3 E I f. 112

While this depiction of Moses with horns may seem unusual, to most medieval readers this would have been a familiar portrayal of the biblical figure. It is widely believed that Jerome made a simple translation error when creating the Latin Vulgate, which resulted in Moses being described as having ‘horns on his face’, as opposed to ‘light on his face’.

The figures presented in medieval historiated initials were not always biblical. Kings, queens, bishops, abbots, and even some popular authors also made appearances within the walls of the manuscript letter. In some (rather fun) cases, the author of a text is depicted in the initial, working on the very text in which he sits (like a mirror of a mirror…). In a copy of Peter Lombard’s Sententiae, for example, we see Lombard himself depicted in a large  initial, happily working on the Sententiae. Such author portrayals could be compared to modern book-jackets that feature the author on the back cover!

Yates Thompson 17   f. 42v

Peter Lombard in the historiated Initial ‘Q’ for Que: Yates Thompson 17 f. 42v

Historiated initials might also contain a recognizable scene. In some cases, the artist used the initial to explain ideas or concepts discussed in the adjacent text. In a massive 14th-century encyclopedia known as the Omne Bonum (written by James Le Palmer), there are over 1100 folia and 650 illustrations that help the reader to conceptualize the terms presented in the text.

The following image, for instance, depicts the initial ‘G’ for Gula (or Gluttony). Here the artist does not simply showcase the individual eating or drinking too much, but instead visually warns of the adverse consequences of such actions.

Royal 6 E VII   f. 195

Historiated Initial ‘G’ for Gula: Royal 6 E VII f. 195

Other examples appear to be designed to evoke an emotional response from the reader, perhaps spurring them prayer. One manuscript with a wide assortment of detailed (and somewhat gory) historiated initials is a collection of Saints’ Lives (Royal 20 D VI), currently held at the British Library. In this volume there are many colourful examples that depict the rather gruesome martyrdoms of various saints.

Royal 20 D VI   f. 51

The martyrdom of Vincent: Royal 20 D VI f. 51

Royal 20 D VI   f. 86v

The martyrdom of Hippolytus, Historiated Initial ‘V’ for VosRoyal 20 D VI f. 86v

In addition to conjuring up emotional responses, these initials could also serve as a useful textual place-marker, helping the reader to find a specific part of the story without having to read through the text. If a reader wished to find a specific passage in William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer (History of the Crusades), for example, he could simply search through the illustrative scenes at the opening of each new text. Here we see the Siege of Jerusalem (note the little man entering the hole in the wall):

Yates Thompson 12   f. 40v

Historiated initial ‘V’ for Verite: Yates Thompson 12 f. 40v

While historiated initials serve a variety of purposes (textual clarification, elaboration, and place-markers), they are also a testament to the artist’s talent. Manuscript initials provided a unique canvas for artists to show off their skills, which were often incredibly impressive and detailed. To end this brief foray into the world of the historiated initial, I would like to leave you with this wonderful example of Paul the Hermit reading alone in a shrub: 
Royal 20 D VI   f. 195v

Historiated Initial ‘A’ for Asserz: Royal 20 D VI f. 195v (British Library)

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Talk to the Hand: Finger Counting and Hand Diagrams in the Middle Ages

By Irene O’Daly

In the absence of computers and calculators, a highly elaborate system of finger-counting and gestural sign-language developed in the Middle Ages for representing numbers and facilitating conceptual reasoning. These are often represented graphically in medieval manuscripts and provide an insight into teaching and learning practices in this period. One of the most significant figures in the development of this tradition was the Northumbrian monk Bede (673/74-735) who wrote an important text on the calculation of time entitled De Temporum Ratione (725). Along with a series of calendar tables traditionally appended to it, the text often included a representation of Bede’s system of finger calculation, an elaborate version of learning to count from one to ten using one’s fingers. In this fourteenth-century version from Italy, the hand gestures are demonstrated by a series of figures, each labelled with a number. Note that the final figure in the middle row switches to using his right hand to represent the number 100 (Roman numeral C) – numbers from 1-99 were indicated by the left hand, from 100 up the right hand was used and the hands could be used to demonstrate numbers up to 9,999. There was even an indication for 1 million – the hands were clasped together with the fingers interlaced.

Paris BN, MS Lat. 7418, f. 3v

Paris BN, MS Lat. 7418, f. 3v Source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF


These representations of numbers depended on moving your hand in a certain way. Another version of hand-counting for the purposes of calculation was also inspired by Bede, and was less dependent on the specific placement of the fingers. The hands depicted in these illustrations helped calculations based on the nineteen-year lunar cycle. Each finger joint was assigned one year; Bede included the tips of the fingers as ‘joints’, which is why the thumb is divided into three, and each finger into four. As important liturgical feasts, such as Easter, changed date from year-to-year depending on the lunar cycles, it was useful to have a counting system literally ‘to hand’.

St John's College, Oxford, MS 17, f. 98v

St John’s College, Oxford, MS 17, f. 98v http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/ms-17

Another prominent use of hand diagrams in the Middle Ages is for the study of music. In the early tenth century, a monk called Guido of Arezzo derived the solfège method to aid monks to learn how to sight-sing with ease, assigning each note of a six-note scale a syllable (in Guido’s case, ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la). The ‘Guidonian hand’ elaborated this system by assigning a note to each part of the hand. This allowed singers to understand how notes related to each other.

Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS D.75 inf, f. 6r. Image reproduced in J. Murdoch, The Album of Science, Vol. 1 (New York, 1984) p. 81

Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS D.75 inf, f. 6r. Image reproduced in J. Murdoch, The Album of Science, Vol. 1 (New York, 1984) p. 81

As in the case of the computus manualis, 19 locations for notes on the hand were placed on the different joints of the fingers, but as the hand was used to depict a twenty-note scale, one additional location was required, which was assigned to the reverse of the third joint of the middle finger. This is usually represented in the diagrams as an additional location hovering over the middle finger, as can be seen in this depiction.

What all these hand diagrams have in common is that they served as a physical way to represent abstract concepts. In so doing, they became valuable mnemonic devices. The versatility of the hand, with its nineteen ‘common locations’ meant that it could be used to represent a number of different things – dates, music, and even as this fourteenth-century diagram demonstrates, to facilitate prayer, with each location on the hand given a different contemplative value for ‘meditatio nocturna per manum’.

British Library, MS Harley 273, f. 111r

British Library, MS Harley 273, f. 111r © The British Library

The hand, the most portable device of all, was a powerful tool for symbolic representation, calculation, and mental processing in the Middle Ages, and indicates the presence of a comprehensive, but elusive, gestural vocabulary, the full meaning of which we can only guess.

For further reading on this subject see:
J. Roberts, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (ed. M. Lieb, J. Roberts, E. Mason, Oxford, 2013)
S. G. Bruce, Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition c. 900-1200,  (Cambridge, 2009)
J. Murdoch, Album of Science: Volume 1: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (New York, 1984)

Posted in Irene O'Daly

My Week of Lecturing in Oxford

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

It is the evening of Thursday 27 February, 2014, and at the moment I am sitting in The White Horse being stared at by Inspector Morse, who frequented this pub back in the day – and who seems to have left a portrait behind every time he did. When I look out the window I can see the Bodleian Library, that treasure trove of medieval books. For the past week this is where I have been: Oxford, more precisely Corpus Christi College. Invited to be the 2014 E.A. Lowe Lecturer in Palaeography, I came to the college for a week to give lectures on medieval script. I learned a lot over the past week, both from the audience’s responses and through discussions with colleagues, both inside and outside Corpus Christi College – a most welcoming and hospitable community. This blog has everything to do with medieval manuscripts, but it is more personal than usual, if you forgive me: I thought I’d give a sense of what it entails, doing lectures in a historical place like this. So here is my week of being part of a stimulating academic world.

Corpus Christi College, Oxford (pic: my own)

Corpus Christi College, Oxford (pic: my own)

I arrived in Oxford last Thursday afternoon, just in time to hear @WillNoel do the annual McKenzie Lecture in bibliography in St Cross College, titled “Bibliography in Bits”. Will, Twitter celebrity par excellence, is a well-known proponent of Open Access and making digital data available for all to download and use. (“For free!” he would add to that in a loud voice.) He talked about digital surrogates of medieval books: how a manuscript’s digital representation is its own entity, how it exists – is – in its own right. He showed how a digital manuscript is a resource that teaches us things the material object itself may not reveal. His lecture (and the dinner that followed) formed a great start of my week here. It would also be the last thing I would do – until now, sitting in this pub – without a certain amount of pressure.

That pressure was not just generated by the venue, but also by the fact that the data at the heart of my lectures had just been harvested – with the indispensable help of my Research Assistant, RV. The paint of my lectures still wet, much of my free time was filled with going through my data and deducing how to expand the scope of my papers with their help. My three lectures aimed to show how the major book script of the Early Middle Ages (Caroline Minuscule, in use from c. 800 to c. 1100) morphed into the major book script of the Later Middle Ages (Littera Textualis, or Gothic script, used from c. 1200 to c. 1600). It’s a great topic because the century in between the two is filled with experimentation by scribes, of mixing older and newer features, and of fights for dominance between opposing letter shapes. My approach was threefold. First, finding a way to describe in objective terms what the actual difference is between the letter shapes in the two scripts. Second, registering in a database whether scribes in different ages and geographical areas preferred the Caroline or Gothic presentation of a letter. Third, translating this data into graphs that provide insight into the transformation from the one script into the other. Each step of my research came with challenges and limitations, but also with opportunities to advance our knowledge.

Title slide of my first lecture

Title slide of my first lecture

So, here we are, on the Friday: my first lecture. It focuses on how the transitional script from the Long Twelfth Century evolved over time. The theater is filling up nicely (about 75 people have come) and I start to do my thing. I discuss the method for about twenty minutes and then dive into the paleographical depths of the complex hybrid script. Highlighting differences between letter shapes I begin to carve out an objectified description of the road between Caroline and Gothic, focusing not on the overall impression but on hard, measurable features. I challenge the traditional temporal boundaries of the two scripts and feel brave enough to query, at the end of the lecture, whether we ought to perhaps abolish our notion of Caroline and Gothic being different scripts. Would it not be better to regard them as different expressions of the same writing system? My data certainly backed up this provocative idea. After the lecture a dinner was organized in the founder’s room of Corpus Christi Corpus: a great end of my first performance.

Then came the weekend, which I spent with family just outside Oxford – walks, pubs, and a newspaper on Sunday. On Monday I did an extra-curricular masterclass for the Centre for the Study of the Book, which runs under auspices of The Bodleian Libraries (here). It had been arranged only a few weeks earlier, within half an hour, and entirely through Twitter messages between me and @DanielWakelin1 – medieval books are so modern! In a seminar room filled with graduate students, faculty and nine medieval manuscripts I talked about two unusual book types: the elegantly tall and narrow holsterbook, and the off-cut manuscript, which is made from recycled strips of parchment. The students had picked out a selection of specimens from the Bodleian Library, adding to the class’s hands-on character. In the afternoon the Fellow Librarian of Merton College gave me a private tour through their medieval library, which is Britain’s oldest surviving library designed for use by scholars (I blogged about it here).

Medieval Library at Merton College (pic: my own)

Medieval Library at Merton College (pic: my own)

Then came Tuesday and my second Lowe Lecture. Having done temporal development last Friday, it made sense to focus on the enormous regional variation in the transformation from Caroline to Gothic. When you place a manuscript from Germany next to one from France you can sense that they are not equally advanced, but with a new tool I developed I could support such intuitive verdicts with a number. I introduced the notion of Gothic Weight, which measures the “Gothicness” of a script written between 1075 and 1225. It gives a value to each of the thirty or so features I track in my database: 2 points for Gothic, 0 points for Caroline and 1 point if the script trait in question is presented in a mixed form – meaning that the scribe uses both Caroline and Gothic on the same page. When the points are added up, you end up with one number representing how advanced or behind an individual scribe was with respect to his handwriting. It means you can compare a German and a French manuscript objectively, as well as comparing Germany and France as a whole (by taking the average Gothic Weight), or even map the increase of Gothiness over time within European regions.

Sculpture of a scholar, Bodleian Library (Pic: my own)

Sculpture of a scholar, Bodleian Library (Pic: my own)

Wednesday and Thursday were filled with working hard on the third paper, in which I aimed to show how Gothic script evolved not over time or in different regions, but as a novelty that was passed on to new generations of scribes. How did idiosyncrasy turn into new norm? My database did not provide an answer to this question, but using my data in combination with broader questions I could explore the very difficult question of a script’s dissemination – albeit without providing a definitive answer. The paper mainly focused on training, as I figured this was the moment when a new script feature had the chance to jump to a new user – a novice in a monastery being trained to write for the first time. In fact, such transmission would depend on the person in charge of training novices: if he was modern and advanced, then likely so would his pupils be. The main part of the paper therefore examined two cases where teacher and pupil were found on the same page: the first prompting the latter, monitoring progress, and correcting mistakes. It is exciting research given that you study, in a sense, the “homework” of a medieval scribe.

After the lecture I was invited for dinner in St Edmunds Hall and after that I retreated to the White Horse, where I am currently writing this blog. The bell for the last round has just rung, so I must be off – away from this pub and, tomorrow, from Oxford. One last time I will open the medieval gate of Corpus Christi College with my electronic key chain – a contrast that strikes me as a suitable parallel for my week of studying digitally the handwriting of medieval scribes.

More information – The full abstracts of my Lowe Lectures are found here. More about my approach to medieval script in this blog about kissing letters. Download this free book if you want to read an article I wrote on mapping script objectively.

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When is a Book not a Book? The Medieval Book Shrine.

By Julie Somers

While browsing images of medieval treasure bindings, I noticed that one example I was looking at was not actually a book at all.  In fact, it was an ornamented wooden case made to closely resemble a book. Produced in Germany, it was created to hold various sacred objects, including leaves from actual books, in this case the Gospels, along with other corporeal relics.

Book Shaped Reliquary c.1000 (Germany)

Book Shaped Reliquary c.1000 (Germany) Cleveland Museum of Art

This type of reliquary is often known as a cumdach, or book shrine.  An elaborate ornamented box or case used to hold relics or, more often, manuscript fragments that were considered sacred in some manner. Usually quite small, they served as a portable vessel meant for the preservation of a sacred text that represented a direct connection or association to a saint. They were often decorated in metalwork or ivory carvings, with precious stones to symbolize the valuable nature of the object inside, imitating a treasure binding. These ornamented boxes would be used for the swearing of oaths, protection or even healing purposes. The cumdach of the Book of Durrow (c. 877) is the earliest recorded book-shrine, however it has been lost. Several examples exist from Ireland in the 11th century.

Believed to contain a copy of the Gospels that belonged to Molaise of Laserian, a contemporary of Columba, the cumdach of Molaise was produced in the early 11th century.

Book-Shrine or cumdach of Molaise, c.1001-25 (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin)

Book-Shrine or cumdach of Molaise, c.1001-25 (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin)

The cumdach of Columba’s Psalter, a copper and silver plated book-shrine was made between 1062 and 1098 to hold the Psalter of St. Columba, a manuscript produced in Ireland which dates to the late 6th or early 7th century. The manuscript it held became known as the ‘Cathach’ or ‘Battler’, and the case protected the manuscript as it became a talisman carried into battles.


Cumdach of Columba’s Psalter (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin) 

Another example, known as the Domnach Airgid or “Silver Church” holds a fragmentary gospel manuscript from the 8th or 9th century, and acts as a reliquary with a connection to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Produced over several centuries, estimated from as early as the 6th century and still being reworked and ornamented in the 14th century, this reliquary was most likely intended to hold bodily relics, while the manuscript was placed inside at a later time.


Shrine of Saint Patrick's Gospels. early 20th century (original dated 1080–1100) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shrine of Saint Patrick’s Gospels. early 20th century (original dated 1080–1100) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The cumdach of Dimma’s Book was produced in the twelfth century to encase the 8th century Gospel Book copied by the scribe Dimma (Dublin, Trinity College, MS.A.IV.23). A reproduction of the case was created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and can be viewed online.


"Book of Dimma" Shrine early 20th century (original dated 11th century) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Book of Dimma” Shrine early 20th century (original dated 11th century) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One last example of a book-shrine, the cumdach of the Stowe Missal, produced in the 11th century, now at the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy.

Book or Shrine, Cumdach of the Stowe Missal. early 20th century (original dated 1025–52) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Book or Shrine, Cumdach of the Stowe Missal. early 20th century (original dated 1025–52) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is evident from these examples that these cases were meant to directly resemble a book, symbolizing the important manuscripts found inside. Even today, we place important mementos or documents such as love letters or birth announcements within the pages of a family Bible or book of poetry, or even personal items within a faux dictionary safe placed on a bookshelf. This tradition of encasing our precious items has endured.

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Dragons and Courtiers: Medieval Doodles in a Leiden Manuscript

By Jenneka Janzen

This week’s blog is a show-and-tell of one of my new favourite finds in Leiden University’s Special Collections.

Two weeks ago, Turning Over a New Leaf hosted another successful colloquium and Lieftinck Lecture. I coordinated the manuscript display, which included selecting a number of manuscripts to show attendees, choosing which folios to display, and writing a short description to accompany each book. This is normally an easy (albeit time-consuming) task, but this time, the theme was rather outside my usual expertise: vernacular manuscripts. I work with earlier books as a rule – 1250 is very late by my standards –  and I stick exclusively to Latin. But, stepping out of my manuscript ‘comfort zone’ proved to be both enlightening and entertaining!

One of the manuscripts I requested to show was SCA 40, a copy of the Chronicque de la traïson et mort de Richart II roy d’Engleterre (the Chronicle of the Betrayal and Death of King Richard II of England) written c. 1401-1425 in France. In addition to a titillating story, it contains several beautiful semi-grisaille (that is, done mostly in grey monochrome) miniatures. Based on the online catalogue information available, I thought it would make for a catchy display.

The miniature shown here, at the opening of the Chronicque, shows a glum-looking Richard returning Brest (symbolized by the keys) to the Duke of Brittany, apparently standing on the Breton shore. Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, f. 1r. Photo JPC Janzen.

The miniature shown here, at the opening of the Chronicque, shows a glum-looking Richard returning Brest (symbolized by the keys) to the Duke of Brittany, apparently standing on the Breton shore. Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, f. 1r. Photo JPC Janzen.

The text was originally written by an anonymous member of Queen Isabella’s court shortly after Richard II’s death in February 1400. The work is a propaganda piece, intended to provoke French nobles against Richard’s successor, Henry IV.  It was revised several times in the first half of the 15th century, eventually ending with the movement of Richard’s remains in March 1406. Altogether there are 37 manuscripts in 4 different versions; SCA 40 is the second version, of which there are 14 other surviving copies.

Here the extremely brutal death of Sir Thomas Blount (1400) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Blount_(died_1400) , one of Richard II’s supporters, is related and illustrated. Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, f. 42v. Photo JPC Janzen

Here the extremely brutal death of Sir Thomas Blount (1400), one of Richard II’s supporters, is related and illustrated. Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, f. 42v. Photo JPC Janzen

Overall it’s a charming manuscript with a lovely script, appealing miniatures, and humorous catch-word drawings.

Close up of catch-word “desloyal”. Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, f. 6v. Photo JPC Janzen

Close up of catch-word “desloyal”. Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, f. 6v. Photo JPC Janzen

But it also contains a fun surprise! Looking for scarce information on this manuscript, I turned first to J.P. Gumbert’s catalogue entry, which mentioned that it contained children’s drawings on the flyleaves. While I’m not quite sure they’re children’s drawings (heck, I went to art school for a few years and my drawings are not much better) they are certainly amusing!  In addition to pen sketches of Christ and the martyrdom of St Sebastian, there are several colour scenes which (also) have nothing to do with the Chronicque.  Here, spanning the entire opening, St George fights the dragon, who is tied to the princess by her girdle while the king and queen of Silene look on from the castle ramparts.

St George and the Dragon. Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, ff. 52v-53r. Photo JPC Janzen

St George and the Dragon. Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, ff. 52v-53r. Photo JPC Janzen

In the following opening, male and female courtiers gather in fine dress, meeting toe-to-toe in the gutter.

Fantastic headwear, textured fabrics and luxury trimmings – these are a fashionable bunch! Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, ff. 53v-54r. Photo JPC Janzen

Fantastic headwear, textured fabrics and luxury trimmings – these are a fashionable bunch! Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Ms SCA 40, ff. 53v-54r. Photo JPC Janzen

The drawings were clearly added after the book was bound, which could mean a number of things: perhaps the illustrator prized his or her artistry enough to add it to the blank space of a beautiful book or, conversely, maybe the manuscript was not particularly treasured despite its quality and thus a suitable place for ‘doodles’. The drawings are contemporary with the later 15th/early 16th-century pen trials and labels found on the flyleaves, and while we cannot discount that the drawings may be intentionally archaic, the detailed clothing and armour also suggest a date within a century of the book’s production. Their impromptu character, random subject matter, and thoughtful (if amateur) detail make them some of the most pleasing and unexpected evidence of a medieval person’s interaction with a manuscript I’ve yet seen.

J.P. Gumbert, “Medieval Manuscripts in French in the Leiden University Library: A Handlist” in Medieval Codicology, Iconography, Literature, and Translation. Studies for Keith Val Sinclair, ed. P.R. Monks & D.D.R. Owen (Leiden,  1994), 28-47.
J. J. N. Palmer, “The Authorship, Date and Historical Value of the French Chronicles of the Lancastrian Revolution”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library lxi (1978-9), 145-181.
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Medieval Book Furniture!

By Jenny Weston

Today’s post is dedicated to lecterns and bookshelves — the essential furniture of the medieval book! Both of these items were regular companions of the book and they played an important role in supporting and protecting manuscripts while in use and in storage.

The lectern is one of the most recognizable features of the church, and like today, they were used by medieval readers to hold open their books during public readings. Many of them were beautifully carved or decorated to reflect the importance of the books they held.

Notice the two little wooden spindles at either side of this early 15th-century lectern, designed to hold long candles for reading in dark places:

Wooden lectern, c. 1490

Wooden lectern, c. 1490 (Image Source: Victoria & Albert Museum)

With the help of the lectern, the reader did not have to strain his arms holding up the book, which may have been quite heavy, and it also accommodated ‘hands-free’ reading. This was important for those conducting a church service or those delivering an important lecture in the classroom. Indeed, many medieval masters relied on hand-gestures to emphasize or articulate specific points of their argument.


University master gesturing from a lectern

One of the most common lecterns used in the Middle Ages (and still in use today) is known as the gospel-lectern. As the name suggests, these particular stands were designed to hold open a gospel-book during the mass.

This painted wooden lectern is from the German Abbey of Alpirsbach (c. 1150-1175) and depicts the four evangelists holding up the book-platform on their shoulders:


Image Source: Web Gallery of Art

Many of these gospel-lecterns take the form of an eagle — the symbolic animal form of the evangelist John. The eagle was believed to fly the highest (and thus the closest to heaven). In his preface to his commentary on Matthew, St Jerome explains that John is represented by the eagle because it is he who, ‘having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God’.

The image below depicts such a lectern carved from marble by the Italian artist Giovanni Pisano (c. 1240-1319). If you look closely you can see that the eagle is clutching a small book in its talons:

Gospel-books were not the only type of book placed on a lectern however. These stands were also used to hold large copies of the psalms or musical texts, such as missals, which would be performed by a choir. In manuscript illuminations, we often find images of singers crowding around a lectern while they sing:


Dominican and Franciscan friars singing from books (c. 1250-1262), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 107.224.

Despite the fact that the book was presented on a large stand, realistically the group of singers would have had a difficult time reading the words and notes on the page. It is quite likely that most individuals would have memorized the material beforehand and the books would have been displayed on the lectern as part of the ceremonial tradition rather than serving an immediate practical purpose.

When books were not being used, they were often stored in large book-chests known as armaria (singular: armarium). This style of book-chest looks almost like a modern trunk turned on its side with the doors facing outwards. Shelves were often added to organize the books inside.

The earliest image of an armarium can be found on a marble sarcophagus from Rome (200 CE), which attests to the longevity of this system of book-storage!

Earliest portrayal of an armarium, c. 200 CE (Image source: From Cave Paintings to the Internet)

Earliest portrayal of an armarium, c. 200 CE (Image source: From Cave Paintings to the Internet)

The most famous portrait of a medieval armarium can be found in the famous eighth-century bible known as the Codex Amiatinus. On fol. 5r, there is a miniature of Ezra writing next to a large wooden book-chest; the books are laid flat on the shelves:

Armarium pictured in the Codex Amiatinus

Armarium pictured in the Codex Amiatinus

Eventually the doors of the armarium would be removed and the modern-book shelf as we know it would be born.

In the post-medieval world, some rather creative early-modern engineers eventually designed an all-in-one system that featured a bookshelf (a miniature chained library included), a desk, a small lectern, and a cupboard. I could definitely use one of these in my office…

Posted in Jenny Weston, Project News | Tagged , ,

Scribal Abuse in the Middle Ages

Today’s blog is a guest post from Thijs Porck, a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Culture, Universiteit Leiden.

Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle 
Boece or Troilus to wryten newe,       
Under thy lokkes thou most have the scalle,     
But after my making thou wryte trewe.             
So ofte a daye I mot thy werk renewe,
Hit to correcte and eek to rubbe and scrape;    
And al is through thy negligence and rape.     

[Adam scribe, if it should ever happen to you that you write Boethius or Troilus anew, may you have scabs under your locks, unless you copy in true fashion in accord with my lines. So often in a day I must renew your work, and correct and rub and scrape it; and all is through your negligence and haste.]

In this famous little poem, Geoffrey Chaucer cursed the sloppiness of his scribe Adam. However, some evidence of the medieval punishments inflicted on other scribes in the Middle Ages suggests Adam got off lightly.  

A number of inscriptions, added in the margins of English manuscripts, suggests that negligent scribes could face physical repercussions. In London, British Library, Harley 55, a twelfth-century miscellany containing medical texts and Anglo-Saxon law codes, an added note reads “Writ þus oððe bet ride aweg Ælfmær pattafox þu wilt swingan Ælfric cild”. Depending on whether we interpret the word “bet” as a form of Old English betan ‘to make amends, pay’ or bett ‘better’, this note translates as either ‘Write like this or pay (and) ride away, Ælfmær Pattafox will hit you Ælfric, child’ or ‘Write like this or better ride way, Ælfmær Pattafox will hit you Ælfric, child’.

London, British Library, Harley 55, fol. 4v © British Library

London, British Library, Harley 55, fol. 4v © British Library

 Similar threats of violence against a scribe failing to reproduce the script of his exemplar are found in two twelfth-century notes, added in the margins of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 20 (a ninth-century copy of Alfred’s Old English translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care). These notes are directed at scribe Willimot and read “willimot writ þus oððe bet” [Willimot, write like this or pay/better] and “writ þus oððe bet oððe þine hyde forlet” [write like this or pay/better or lose your skin]. Similar admonitions to ‘write like this’, albeit without explicit threats of physical punishment, can be found in other Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (Whitbread 1983).

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 20, fol. 53v (top) and fol. 55r (bottom) © Bodleian Library

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 20, fol. 53v (top) and fol. 55r (bottom) © Bodleian Library

The scribal notes in Harley 55 and Hatton 20 are painful reminders of the fact that a strict regime of physical discipline was an integral part of monastic education.  A twelfth-century manuscript now in Durham Cathedral Library shows a pupil being beaten by his teacher, next to the rubric “Afficitur plagis qui non vult discere gratis”  [He who does not want to learn freely must be taught with blows] (Cleaver 2009).

Durham, Cathedral Library, Hunter 100, fol.44r © Durham Cathedral

Durham, Cathedral Library, Hunter 100, fol.44r © Durham Cathedral

Monastic rules abound in corporal punishment for misbehaving monks and these sometimes included negligent scribes. The 9th-century typikon of the monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople, for example, lists the following punishments:

A diet of bread and water was the penalty set for the scribe who became so much interested in the subject matter of what he was copying that he neglected his task of copying. Monks had to keep their parchment leaves neat and clean, on penalty of 130 penances. If anyone should take without permission another’s quaternion (that is, the ruled and folded sheets of parchment), 50 penances were prescribed. If anyone should make more glue than he could use at one time and it should harden, he would have to do 50 penances. If a scribe broke his pen in a fit of temper (perhaps after having made some accidental blunder near the close of an otherwise perfectly copied sheet), he would have to do 30 penances (Wegner 2004, p. 210).

One particularly painful corporal punishment of a scribe, though not for erroneous copying, is found in the 9th-century Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna by Andreas Agnellus. After Ravenna rebelled against the Byzantine Empire at the end of the seventh century, one of its local rebels, the scribe Johannicis, is arrested and brought before Byzantine Emperor Justinian II, ‘the slit-nosed’ (669-711):

Justinian, having become enraged, ordered Johannicis to be brought into his presence; as if ignorant, he asked him ironically, “is this indeed Johannicis the scribe?” and when he answered that it was he, the imperial rage rose yet higher. He ordered a reed to be brought and he ordered that it be forced under all the nails of his fingers up to the second joint. He then ordered parchment and pen to be given, that [Johannicis] might write. When he received it, he forced the pen between two fingers. He did not write with ink, but with the blood which flowed from his fingers (Mauskopf Deliyannis 2004, pp. 265-6).

In true heroic fashion, Johannicis writes a prayer to God in his own blood on the parchment and throws this in the Emperor’s face. The enraged Justinian then orders Johannicis to die a ‘mouse’s death’; that is: he is crushed between two stones and dies.

In view of the above, Chaucer could have done a lot worse to Adam scriveyn than a mere conditional curse of scabs. So, the next time you are frustrated with barely legible scripts or missing pieces of text in medieval manuscripts and feel like wringing the scribe’s neck, rest assured that his contemporaries probably got there first…


Cleaver, L., ‘Grammar and Her Children: Learning to Read in the Art of the Twelfth Century’, Marginalia 9 (2009), http://www.marginalia.co.uk/journal/09education/cleaver.php
Mauskopf Deliyannis, D. (Trans.), The Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna (The Catholic University of America Press 2004)
Wegner, P.D., The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI 2004).
Whitbread, L.G., ‘A Scribal Jotting from Medieval English’, Notes and Queries 228 (1983), pp. 198-199.  

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Medieval Ghostbusters: The Story of M.R. James

By Irene O’Daly

On Christmas Day I was delighted to see that the prime-time offering from the BBC was a documentary on a giant of the field of manuscript scholars, M.R. James. The focus of the documentary was not James’ work as a manuscript cataloguer, however, but another aspect of his output for which is best remembered in the public imagination, that is, his ghost stories.

Stamp of M.R. James issued as part of the Royal Mail's 'Britons of Distinction' series (2012)

Stamp of M.R. James issued as part of the Royal Mail’s ‘Britons of Distinction’ series (2012)

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 and in many respects typified the Victorian scholar; schooling at Eton was followed by a long period as a bachelor-academic in Cambridge, after which James returned to Eton as provost, dying in 1936. In the manuscript world, James’ principal contribution was his series of catalogues of the libraries of Cambridge colleges, such as Trinity, Corpus Christi, as well as of the collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where he was director from 1893-1908. While I had always known that James was a prolific scholar, I had not realised that much of his work was conducted early in his career; by his early thirties, James had already published catalogues of five principal collections in Cambridge. The enterprise was aided by the fact that many of the colleges simply sent their manuscripts to James’ rooms to allow him to work more efficiently on the material, a convenience unimaginable to the modern scholar!

James’ method was captured in the title given to many of his volumes; they were ‘descriptive catalogues’. James not only recorded the contents and appearance of the volumes, but included invaluable histories of how the manuscripts had ended up in their collections, and lengthy transcriptions of interesting or unusual passages. His extensive knowledge of medieval library collections and extant booklists allowed him to assign provenance to many manuscripts, as demonstrated by the overlap between his cataloguing of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi, and his reconstruction of the holdings of The Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover.

The BBC documentary, M.R. James: Ghost Writer, drew attention to James’ second career as a writer of spooky tales, a sideline seemingly developed from James’ natural talent as a raconteur. The documentary pointed out that many of James’ stories star characters who seem to be a shallow pastiche of James himself – single male academics who spend their holidays rooting around medieval ruins and among libraries. The stories often focus on books containing alchemical treatises, old maps, or ciphered inscriptions.

Cathedral of St Bertrand de Comminges. Watch the clip about James' description of the cathedral here: http://bbc.in/19l9mhU

Cathedral of St Bertrand de Comminges. Watch the clip about James’ description of the cathedral here: http://bbc.in/19l9mhU

One such story, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook takes as its setting a cathedral in France. The protagonist, Dennistoun, deserted by his two travelling companions (‘half an hour at the church would satisfy them‘), chooses to spend a day photographing and recording details of the cathedral architecture. Not only, as highlighted in the documentary, did James provide an accurate description of the church, but upon reading the tale myself, I found an evocative account of the book found by Dennistoun, which echoed some of the more vivid entries found in his manuscript catalogues:

‘Before him lay a large folio, bound, perhaps, late in the seventeenth century [….]. There may have been a hundred and fifty leaves of paper in the book, and on almost every one of them was fastened a leaf from an illuminated manuscript. [….] Here were ten leaves from a copy of Genesis, illustrated with pictures, which could not be later than A.D. 700. Further on was a complete set of pictures from a Psalter, of English execution, of the very finest kind that the thirteenth century could produce; and perhaps, best of all, there were twenty leaves of uncial writing in Latin, which, as a few words seen here and there told him at once, must belong to some very early unknown patristic treatise.’

In another tale, The Uncommon Prayer Book, the principal character comes across a deserted chapel where the prayer books are always found open to a particular page. He notes that the page ‘is a very odd and wholly unauthorised addition’ to the Book of Common Prayer, and ‘knowing the need for particular accuracy in these matters, he devoted some ten minutes to making a line-for-line transcript of it’. The character’s attention to rooting out bibliographical details that may provide clues to solve a mystery brings to mind James’ academic rigour, as well as his interest in apocryphal biblical texts.

Worship of the Seven-Headed Beast from the Trinity Apocalypse (Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. R.16.2)

Worship of the Seven-Headed Beast from the Trinity Apocalypse, one of the manuscripts described in detail by James (Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. R.16.2, f. 14v). See catalogue entry here : http://sites.trin.cam.ac.uk/james/show.php?index=1199

James’ gripping accounts of hauntings were peppered with one-liners about academic study which still ring true. One story (Two Doctors) begins ‘It is a very common thing, in my experience, to find papers shut up in old books; but one of the rarest things to come across any such that are at all interesting.’ James’ self-deprecating sense of humour is one of the most appealing features of his stories and, perhaps, explains their enduring appeal (The Collected Ghost Stories have recently [2013] been reissued in the Oxford World’s Classics series). His valuable contributions to the fields of manuscript studies and literature alike remind us that the best research always requires a touch of imagination (and perhaps a healthy respect for ghosts…).

Extracts from: M.R. James, The Collected Ghost Stories (Oxford, 2013). For further information about James see R.W. Pfaff, ‘James, Montague Rhodes: College Head, Scholar, and Author’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

Posted in Irene O'Daly

Fit for Harry Potter: Strange Creatures from the Medieval Bestiary

By Ramona Venema

Ramona Venema works as a research assistant in the Turning Over a New Leaf project. Her previous post was devoted to medieval cooking. She maintains her own cookery blog.

The medieval bestiary has already been discussed in this blog. However, while the previous post focused on beasts you may encounter in real life today, such as owls, beavers and cats, the wildly popular bestiary also contained more exotic animals, which you will only encounter in your dreams – or rather, in your nightmares. I find the odd creatures in this blog fascinating, especially since medieval individuals saw them as part of their own world. Let’s have a look at a small selection of bizarre beasts from medieval times, which appear to have walked straight out of the Harry Potter novels. In fact, two of them do appear there.
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley MS 602

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley MS 602 (Unicorn)

First of all, there is the unicorn. The unicorn is familiar to us because of its presence in popular culture, where it features on t-shirts and in a great deal of photoshopped images (see this Google search result). In medieval times the unicorn was seen as the enemy of the elephant: it would attack the elephant with its horn or hoof, piercing its skin. The unicorn was almost impossible to catch. The hunter used a virgin girl to lure the creature closer. When the unicorn put his head in the virgin’s lap, the hunter took his shot – or, as in this image, he used his club to strike him down.

As some might recognize from reading the Harry Potter books, which deserve to be mentioned in a post devoted to such exotic creatures, one could use the horn of a unicorn to detect poison, and even counter its effects. The horn was dipped into the liquid, which became safe to drink. The story goes that in powdered form the unicorn’s horn could be used as an aphrodisiac – which is no surprise, really, given the whole horn-in-virgin’s-lap scenario. In sum, it was quite a nifty object to have at your disposal as a medieval king, who was traditionally the one to receive the horn of a captured unicorn in medieval stories.

London, British Library, Royal MS 12 C.xix

London, British Library, Royal MS 12 C.xix (Caladrius)

Then there is the caladrius. This bird may not seem particularly unusual at first, but it has remarkable properties. Living in the king’s house (royals really liked their mythical creatures), the white bird could spot and cure a sick person. The bird is depicted sitting on a bedridden person, as in the picture above. When it looked away, the person would die. If it looked straight into the patient’s face, however, there was hope for a full recovery. The caladrius would “draw” the illness into itself and fly toward the sun, where it would burn up. The man in the miniature was lucky, given that the bird is looking straight at him.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 1431 (Mandrake)

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 1431 (Mandrake)

A third creature of interest seems ready to attend a Brazilian carnival, as seen in the image above. You may also recognize him from the Harry Potter books: the mandrake. It concerns a plant with a human-shaped root that would shriek when it was pulled out of the ground. The shriek would drive the person who pulled it out mad; it might even kill him. The medieval bestiary therefore suggests giving this job to a dog. The dog would be tied to the plant and it was persuaded to move away from its owner with a piece of meat, thus pulling out the mandrake – well out of reach of the owner’s ears.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 1511

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 1511 (Manticore)

The last creature in this exotic parade would make you run the other way when encountered in a dark alley. The manticore, a red and feisty beast, had the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion and the face of a man. In addition to his appearance, another quality would make it wise to run the other way: the manticore’s favorite dish was human flesh!

Want to know more? A great website about the bestiary and its strange creatures is The Medieval Bestiary, which also proved useful for this blog. Other images may be found in the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Also check out, lastly, Jenneka Janzen’s post on bestiaries, which features a comprehensive list of interesting bestiaries. Happy hunting!

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Top Manuscript News of 2013

By Jenneka Janzen

First, a very Happy New Year to all our readers from the Turning Over a New Leaf Project!

2013 was an exciting year for manuscripts! New technologies and growing digitization programmes enhanced avenues of access and exploration for researchers, while an interested non-expert public kept exhibitions, blogs, and the latest manuscript news in the limelight. Let’s take a quick look back at some of (what I think were) the best manuscript news items of 2013.

Escape of the Timbuktu Manuscripts

A pile of rescued manuscripts. Photo courtesy t160k.org

A pile of rescued manuscripts. Photo courtesy t160k.org.

In early 2013, violence erupted in Northern Mali, where rebel troops burned two institutes said to house thousands of Islamic manuscripts dating as far back as the twelfth century. Shortly after the calamity, it was revealed that most of the manuscripts had been earlier secreted away to protect them from the looming conflict. Reported widely by international media, this story highlighted the threat that military conflicts pose to precious artifacts, while also demonstrating the importance of both local and global communities in protecting our cultural heritage. For more, see this BBC story, or read about (and if possible, support) the ongoing preservation challenges faced by Timbuktu Libraries in Exile.

Medieval Cats

Photo taken in the Dubrovnik archives, courtesy Emir O. Filipović.

Photo taken in the Dubrovnik archives, courtesy Emir O. Filipović.

No, I’m not kidding; cats were a popular manuscript trend this past year. When Erik Kwakkel retweeted the above picture sent to him by Emir O. Filipović, a researcher at the University of Sarajevo, it went viral. The following week, guest blogger Thijs Porck wrote ‘Paws, Pee, and Mice’ for us, which remains today our top-viewed post. A few weeks later, the Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Discovery (just to name a few) ran with the image. Grumpy Cat even responded.

Uncovering Palimpsests

Image copyright Palamedes Project.

© Image copyright Palamedes Project.

On the scientific front, 2013’s Palamedes Project is using advancing technologies to decipher two palimpsest manuscripts. Facilitated by Georg-August University in Göttingen, Bologna University, and the National Bank of Greece, a team of scholars will use these manuscripts to create critical editions of a previously unknown work by Euripides, and an unidentified fifth-century commentary on Aristotle containing high-quality drawings. Read medievalist.net’s coverage and visit the Project’s website. (Interested in more palimpsests? The Archimedes Palimpsest Project, started in 1998 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, was the forerunner of this project. In February 2013 we hosted a fascinating lecture by Dr. William Noel, the director of this project, about the process and discoveries made.)

Collaborative Digitizing

Image results for one of the Walters manuscripts in the Stanford digital collection.

Image results for one of the Walters manuscripts in the Stanford digital collection.

Many universities, libraries and museums worked singly and together to increase the quantity and quality of their digital collections. In one great collaborative example, the Walters Art Museum and Stanford University teamed up to improve and augment the Walters’ digital manuscript collection (currently holding 100,000 manuscript images): not only will the images be protected from loss or corruption in Stanford’s Digital Repository, but a transcription tool, side-by-side viewing option, indices, and other high-tech reading aids will soon be available. As of now, 281 items are already in Stanford’s database (with limited features so far).

The Vatican and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library also agreed to a four-year project to digitize 1.5 million pages of medieval manuscripts, focusing on Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and incunabula (hopefully inspiring further digitization after this initial goal is reached). They’re already well underway: check out the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project website.

The Lindisfarne Gospels Draw 100,000

The Lindisfarne Gospels, f.2v-3r.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, f.2v-3r.

When the Lindisfarne Gospels left London for a three month sojourn up north, it managed to draw nearly 100,000 interested visitors to Durham University. While only two openings of the 1300 year-old book were displayed (first the Canon Tables, and then the portrait of John the Evangelist), public interest was remarkable. The exhibition also featured the Gospels of St Cuthbert, called the “oldest European book to survive fully intact”, which was purchased by the British Library in partnership with Durham University and Durham Cathedral for £9 million (€10.8 million, $14.8 million US) in March 2012. Clearly, manuscripts are crowd-pleasers! If you didn’t number among the visitors, you can still visit the manuscripts online here and here.

Now, I wonder what’s in store for 2014?

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